San Jose Mercury News, October 27, 1996
WOULD Martin Luther King have supported the California Civil Rights Initiative? Supporters of the ballot initiative have cited King’s words in support of their effort to end affirmative-action programs. King’s family members and former associates in the civil rights movement have expressed outrage over this use of the King legacy.
The state Republican Party on Thursday cut segments of a Proposition 209 TV commercial that featured an eight-second clip of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Although I am a historian and the editor of Kings papers, I am reluctant to speculate about what King might have done if he had not been assassinated in 1968. If he had survived, he would be the product of 67 years of hard-earned experience rather than the 39-year-old civil rights leader of 1968.
Openness to programs
Nevertheless, if others wish to speculate about King, as a historian, I am compelled to object when the abundant documentary evidence regarding his life is ignored or misused. And King’s own words and writings clearly indicate he was open to governmental programs that compensated for past wrongs. Certainly, the use of King’s oration at the 1963 March on Washington to attack affirmative action betrays a lack of historical understanding. King’s dream of a nation in which every American would be judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” was surely his ideal as well as the guiding principle of the civil rights movement. But the complete text of King’s speech makes clear that his dream was of a future that did not yet exist. He spoke of his dream only as an extemporaneous addition to his prepared text, which charged that America had “defaulted” on its promise to ensure “the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all citizens. He warned racial justice would be achieved only when the “whirlwinds of revolt’ shook “the foundations of our nation.”
In fact, realization of King’s “beloved community” would require a radical transformation of American society, and he argued for governmental policies that would compensate for the historical wrongs committed against African-Americans. Although the term “affirmative action” was not widely used during King’s lifetime, he advocated special programs that would enable African-Americans to enjoy equal opportunity.
Evidence of support
Even before the March on Washington, he had applauded the Indian government’s efforts to help the caste once called untouchables through “special treatment to enable the victims of discrimination” including the provision of Especial employment opportunities.” Moreover, in his 1964 book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” King compared the social reforms he favored to the GI Bill of Rights, which gave World War II veterans special preferences including home loans, college scholarships and special advantages in competition for civil service jobs. King maintained that African-Americans could never be adequately compensated for the “exploitation and humiliation” they had suffered in the past, but he proposed a “Negro Bill of Rights” as a partial remedy for these wrongs. He insisted that African-Americans should be compensated through “a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law.” He added that “such measures would certainly be less expensive than any computation based on two centuries of unpaid wages and accumulated interest.”
King’s support of compensatory programs for African-Americans was expressed in the context of his call for major social reforms that would address the economic problems of poor people of all races. His speeches during the final year of his life advocated major economic reforms that went far beyond the kind of affirmative-action programs that later became so controversial.
There is considerable irony that federal affirmative-action programs were first established in the aftermath of King’s assassination. Rather dm the product of King’s activism, they were implemented by the administration of Richard Nixon, who was determined to stifle black militancy. King may have advocated compensatory programs as compensation for past racial injustices, but affirmative-action programs also served as a safety valve for festering black resentment.
Statements speak volumes
It is impossible to know how King would have reacted to the consolidation of affirmative-action programs under Republican and Democratic administrations since his death, but his statements reveal that he sought reforms that were far more extensive dm the affirmative-action programs now in place. We also cannot know how King would feel about those who now misuse his words, but I am reminded of his response to a black leader who capitalized on King’s presence to attract press coverage for a black power pronouncement. “I have been used before,” King remarked, “One more time won’t hurt.”